Of Ravens and Crows

Up in the hills, around town, or on the way to fishing in the Columbia River Gorge, crows and ravens seem to be a regular object of attention lately. They seem to be most everywhere, just making sure we see and hear them, or busily and noisily harassing birds or dogs or cats around town. Generally the first question asked is “Crow or raven?”

These corvids are the largest members of the family which also includes jays and magpies. Here in Paradise, our two black members of the genus Corvus are the common raven and the American crow.

Raven is one of most widespread birds in our state, pretty much at home in dense forests, alpine parkland, and sagebrush areas, and quite rare or absent in most of our cities. Crows, on the other hand, are common in open urban forests, parks and open areas in and around populated areas.

The common raven is the larger, and, arguably, more entertaining of the two. Intelligent, graceful, acrobatic flyers, ravens have been called “the dolphins of the avian world.” It is not uncommon to see a pair of birds “dancing” together, touching wingtips and gracefully flowing past each other in flight. Wander around the edges of the Kittitas Valley and into the foothills and you may see, as has Deborah “Bird Whisperer” Essman, a raven careen up out of some deep canyon, rise to the top of its climb, tip over and dive back down into the canyon – all without fully opening its wings. Jonathan Livingston Seagull has nothing on ravens when it comes to play and flying skill.

One of the keys used by biologists to gauge intelligence among animals is play, and both our corvids regularly demonstrate their considerable intelligence.

You have, no doubt, heard of the work of biologist John M. Marzluff, a 30-year professor of wildlife science at the University of Washington. He is also author (with illustrator Tony Angell) of the book “In the Company of Crows and Ravens.” He found Seattle to be an ideal location to continue his study of crows. After all, the Seattle Audubon Society has noted that crow presence in the Puget Sound has grown significantly over the past several decades, coinciding with the rise in the human population.

Marsluff and his researchers demonstrated pretty conclusively that crows and ravens could recognize people’s faces, even among crowds. In a series of experiments over the last couple decades, crows were handled, banded and occasionally insulted by researchers wearing specific masks. Through the years, crows dove at, or loudly scolded a person wearing that mask. Others nearby would be ignored by the birds. Over time, other crows, in numbers well beyond those actually handled, would behave the same way, indicating some sort of learned behavior and an ability to never forget a face.

(Do a Google search on “corvids” and you will find study after study indicating ability of some birds to plan for the future and to develop specific human friendships. You will even find “savant corvid” conclusions based on abilities to open containers and solve problems. Google “Marzluff and crows” for a variety of fascinating photos of crows in various behaviors.)

American crows are more abundant in urban areas, and a walk across Central Washington University’s campus will give you ample opportunity to consider their characteristics for yourself (although the birds seem to be missing the crowds of students, lately). Crow is more likely than the raven to be among the trees, harassing some squirrel, rabbit or stray pet. They seem most comfortable in open foraging environments – out of forest cover and into urban areas – where there is likely another garbage can just around the next corner.

Identification – telling one corvid from the other – is not that difficult, really. In flight, the crow will seldom glide for long, regularly beating its wings, while the raven will soar and glide for extended distances. Crows’ tails will be roughly squared-off, and ravens’ tails are more wedge-shaped. Ravens have heavier beaks, shaggier throats and bigger bodies. Their calls are unique: raven’s call is a coarse “Kru-u-uck,” while crow’s is a more clear “Caaw…caw” or “Klaah.”

The Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association Science Education Committee requires scientific names. Common raven is Corvus corax and American crow is C. brachyrhynhos. Both birds make their livings on insects, carrion, bird eggs, nestling birds, small mammals, fruit, seeds and grain – and whatever a handy garbage can might reveal. Raven will be to 26 inches long, while crow will be closer to 18 inches. For more info, including reviews of numerous research and observation projects, see The Birder’s Handbook, by Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, or a good field guide. You will also find abundant info online, starting with Cornell University’s Ornithology Lab at

Their high intelligence aside, as you watch the more rural ravens dance and clown across the sky, it is easy to understand why many Native American cultures spoke of the raven as a teacher of life’s magic. Marzluff would remind you that crow-human interaction is deeply rooted, “starting with coastal Native peoples who revered crows and ravens as part of their strong religious beliefs.” In many Native cultural beliefs, crow’s cawing serves as a reminder of universal laws of appropriate behavior.

This seems like a very good time for crow to be cawing across America.

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized